The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis
“The Hermitage of the Metamorphosis was raised in the 13th century, built into the cliffs at a time when the lake’s water level was almost certainly higher. Encircled by high mountains, and more isolated than the lowland plains when Ottoman rule swept across the Balkans, this peninsula, including two further hermitages built along its shore in the 15th century, became a centre for spiritual solitude, a place of pilgrimage and prayer.
They dwelled in stone, these men. While some hermits homed inside caves, others carved beds from the cliffs, little more than hard, ungiving lips suspended above the lake. In the summer crush of light, all the heat of the season is gathered by the suntrap of the cliffs, reflected until it wearies with its sharp intensity, its arid indifference. The sun is no consolation at its height here; it is as relentless as winter. The white stones could be coals underfoot, and sunlight fires the cliffs to a brilliant, blinding glare. The heat is dry and withering, and I wonder if that is what the monks sought here: to live with the light of their desert fathers.
The monks’ lives were composed of prayer and contemplation, a persistent devotion to scriptural study, and the constant toil for provisions. They must have sown seeds on the surface of the cliffs, nurturing sparse crops in the thin soil between stones and trees, and journeyed across the water to collect stores from lakeside villages. But mostly they must have fished to survive on this seam of rock.
As they rowed away from the hermitages, they would have passed pygmy cormorants standing like dark crosses on the stones, their still, outstretched wings drying in sunlight and wind. They’ll have heard the whirr of wings when pelicans kept close to the coast, as if charting its bends and bays, marking a map held in ancestral memory. A memory that once told of monks.”
Julian Hoffman is the author of “The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World” [University of Georgia Press, 2013].
“I’m a writer living beside the Prespa Lakes in northwestern Greece, the first transboundary park in the Balkans. Shared with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the lake basin is home to a rich range of people and languages, mammals and birds, wild flowers and amphibians. It is a place of great diversity. After stints as organic market-gardeners and makers of homemade jams, we now earn a living monitoring vulnerable, upland bird species where wind farms have been built or proposed. I’m also a keen walker and amateur naturalist easily distracted by the wonders to be discovered while out and about.”
““The Small Heart of Things” intimately examines the myriad ways in which connections to the natural world can be deepened through an equality of perception, whether it’s a caterpillar carrying its house of leaves, transhumant shepherds ranging high mountain pastures, a quail taking cover on an empty steppe, or a Turkmen family emigrating from Afghanistan to Istanbul. The narrative spans the common—and often contested—ground that supports human and natural communities alike, seeking the unsung stories that sustain us.
Guided by the belief of Rainer Maria Rilke that “everything beckons us to perceive it,” the book explores the area around the Prespa Lakes, the first transboundary park in the Balkans, shared by Greece, Albania, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. From there it travels widely to regions rarely written about, exploring the idea that home is wherever we happen to be if we accord that place our close and patient attention.”